Interview with CHRIS HERBERT, manager for Spice Girls, Hear'Say (UK No.1), Five, Stephen Gately - Oct 16, 2000
“When we put bands together we'll sit there and look at the whole market and say where there's an area there a certain band would fit.”
Chris Herbert at Safe Management is the manager for several of the most successful pop acts in the UK. He is the manager for Hear'Say, who went to No.1 on the UK Singles Chart with "Pure And Simple, and their album was the fastest selling UK debut album in history. He is also managing Five, Stephen Gately, Lolly and Girl Thing.
Why did you decide to become a manager?
My father [Bob Herbert] has been involved in the music industry for many years, right the way through my childhood. He had an accountancy practice that dealt with a lot of people in the industry. And during the course of that he got involved in management himself.
He was responsible for putting together Bros. I grew up in that environment and was always a massive music fan, seeing that going on around me I just progressed into it. I decided to approach my dad about how to set up a company, doing it full-time and giving it a proper go. And the first thing we put together was the Spice Girls.
Which part of the industry do you work with mostly?
I work mainly in the pop area, which is the younger pop bands. It's the area that I understand. I'm a young manager - I'm only 29 myself - and I started in the industry in my early twenties, so it's an area that I do understand. I understand the whole youth culture and I've never pushed myself outside that. I'm a true believer in you’re better off specialising in one area than spreading yourself thinly across all areas.
Do you view managing as an administrative job, looking after the creative side of the music industry, and what are the creative challenges of being a manager?
As a manager you wear all hats. Personally I enjoy the creative side of it. I'm involved with all our acts on every creative level, I oversee every creative decision and a lot of the ideas come from us as managers. Sort of handing them over to a record company and giving them a free reign to do what they want to do with our acts.
When we actually put our acts together we've got a very clear vision over the way we want them marketed - all the creative ideas; style, musically and image-wise. That's one of our strengths as a management company - we are very hands on in that area.
What characteristics do you consider necessary in order to be a good manager, and what characteristics are needed to be a successful manager - are they the same?
You need to be obviously a good businessman and have a good business-sense. You need to be a psychologist to deal with the artist, you need to be a parent, you need to have a marketing mind, a creative mind. As a manager of a pop artist you need to have just about a complete overview of every single quality. You need to be an accountant, a lawyer, a marketing man … all these things.
A good manager is a successful manager providing he has got the product. If you're not dealing with true talent, you can be the best manager in the world but you'll never going to dress something up to be something that is not.
So you’ve got to have a good eye for talent spotting. Which is another thing we're very good at. We've had a 100% success rate with everything that we've put together. We're good at finding young and fresh talent.
So how do you normally find your young fresh talent?
Traditionally we've always auditioned and put our acts together. In terms of bands, we've gone out and we've done nationwide searches, held original auditions throughout the country. Some of these processes can take six months upwards.
That's not to say that we don't look out for already established artists. For instance we've just taken on Stephen Gately from Boyzone. Stephen approached us to look after his solo career. That was a new challenge for us because Stephen is an established artist - he already had his ideas, his image, style and everything else.
Whereas when we put bands together generally we'll sit there and look at the whole market and say there's an area there a certain kind of band would fit. And we would go out and actually look for a band, and to structure a band to actually fit a specific area in the market.
When we go out and do auditions we put adverts out. I will go around all the performing art schools, I will even go and hand flyers out on the street. Nightclubs, bars where they doing talent nights - I will look everywhere. I will attend all sort of open auditions, theatre auditions and look around to see whether there's anyone that's suitable. Keeping my eyes and ears open always.
What characteristics should a great artist possess?
Charisma, attitude, drive and ambition. You can have all the drive and ambition but you need raw talent. When we're auditioning for artists we look for that attitude, drive and ambition but we're equally looking for the talent as well. A good vocal ability, a good look.
What kind of character does your dream act have?
A dream act would be incredible ambitious, have a good understanding of the mechanics of the industry and also a good understanding of media and how to manipulate media to maximize on all the opportunities within the media.
We bring experience to the breaking acts. They should come in to the industry with no preconceptions of what the industry is, and should come in with a very open mind. And be prepared to learn very quickly, a crash course in the industry because on first appearance the industry is not what it actually is. That could be very confusing and put an act off track. If they're prepared to learn quickly about the industry they can use that as a great vehicle for their careers.
Do you want to work with someone that is religiously well-mannered or rock´n roll rowdy? Would you prefer someone that is very involved in everything that happens with his act or someone who mostly does what everyone tells him to?
I like a bit of both. I really wouldn't want an act which was too teetotal. You need an act with a bit of attitude, a bit of edge, something that makes it stand out from the rest of the pack. Personally I find that more dynamic and more challenging for myself as well. I also think the public wants something like that as well, something that has got a bit more attitude these days.
I like working with acts who treat the relationship like a partnership. It's very much a two way street. You bounce ideas off of each other and you discuss everything. Creatively there's ideas coming from them and you taking some of their ideas, tuning them, changing them around a bit, adding something to them and then presenting them.
So it's a good collaboration of both manager and artist. I think there's a tendency if you haven't got that kind of relationship with an artist that you can end up smothering the artist with just ideas from the manager, and it becomes a bit stale.
So how did Five and Girl Thing first come together?
They were both acts which we put together specifically for the market. When we put together Five, I felt that after the Spice Girls there wasn't a boyband that had done that in the same way as the Spice Girls managed to do it. I believed a boyband could do that as well by being both laddish and have a certain attitude as well as being boys and obviously attracting the opposite sex. That's why we put Five together, a band which was more edgy and had more attitude, the tracks were harder. We achieved that with Five over and above any other boyband has got a better male/female split on their fanbase.
With Girl Thing I just felt that after the Spice Girls moved on some of the appeal that was there right in the early days has now moved away or they moved away from that, and I felt that there was again another area within the market which has been left open for another girlband to come through. And Girl Thing was what we put together for that. We've put together a gang of girls and get young girls aspired to be and would want to be in that gang.
You said you’ve had a 100% success rate wit everything you’ve put together so how were you able to gauge that both groups would be successful, rather than a gamble?
I suppose everything we do is a gamble and an educated guess as to where the market is going, where the gaps are in the market. You just have a bit of a gut feeling about it as you do when you see the individuals in these bands, when they first come into the audition. They've either got that X-factor or they haven't.
We're very good at creating good marketing to launch these bands. Both these bands are on RCA/BMG as a label. And I think RCA-UK are certainly one of the best labels for launching these pop acts. They've got a very good machine that they put these acts through. And that coupled with our experience we're very good at launching these acts now.
Can you explain briefly how a manager makes money.
For his services, the manager will charge a commission on all income derived from the artist's activities. It's the manager's job to maximize all earning potential for the artist, to earn the artist as much money as possible and in turn earn himself as much money. We always charge the same commission. These days it’s pretty much industry standard rates.
There are other ways to earn money, whether you do production, but more the production deal or a label deal; but we've always stayed purely as managers and get our money straight of the management commission.
What is the ‘route’ royalties take, how are they passed on from one to the other?
All the royalties will be accounted directly to the artist. Once those royalties actually come in we will commission on those actual royalties. In the case that an artist has been paid in advance again those royalties, those future royalties or pipeline royalties, we will commission them.
What does an artist need to be aware of as this money is passed around?
Collecting royalties from overseas in particular can be very long-winded and very difficult to track. We work closely with the artist's accountant. And there's only a handful of accountants that which we work with, which we build good relationships with, and we understand how they work. Also we deal with accountants who specialise in royalty tracking. We work closely with them to make sure that every last bit of money from overseas is collected in.
You mentioned that managing Stephen Gately was a new challenge for you. Can you explain what the differences would be in managing such a solo artist compared with a group such as Five?
Stephen is a very easy act to manage. He has worked in the industry for 7 years. He's worked within an environment with four other members. That brings its own challenges. You have very different relationships within a band with all the other members. He's now come out the other side of it feeling probably really matured to the industry.
Sp he's a very different artist to work with to Five, where they've been in it a lot less time and there's five of them in the band, so they're all working on those relationships and the dynamics within the band themselves. As a manager you have to manage all those relationships. That alone can be a huge task. Because not all of those relationships are running on course all the time.
So how do you work with Five on a daily basis?
Now they're at a time in their careers where the day-to-day running with Five is quite smooth. They know what they're doing, like clockwork.
From the early days your roles evolve and now we're very much business managers, forming the strategy of where the path of their careers is going to move, creating the deals, negotiating a lot of deals all the time and at that point it becomes more of a directing role. Earlier on you had to nurture the act, but now they know what they're doing, you can step back a bit more and start looking at the bigger picture.
What plans did you hatch in order to break Lolly, was there any special tactic that you used?
Again with her we looked at the market and there wasn't an act that was catering the pre-teen market, that really young market, and so we put together Lolly. We knew all along the songs would never get played on radio, because they were too young for radio. So it was always very reliance on a very strong TV plot. We channelled all our efforts into creating lots of TV opportunity.
And whereas with a lot of other artists where they probably looking for the big mainstream TV shows to appear on, with Lolly we broke her using low density/high volume satellite digital channels.
She was doing a three month run up to release on those kind of shows and also the bigger shows as well. Because Nickelodeon, Disney channel, all those kind of shows are the shows that this pre-teen audience watch. We really did break her through those channels. The Internet as well, we created the website for her, and all her product, all the marketing was all about interaction with her audience. On her website there's lots of games and interaction, lots of fun and colour, and it became not just about the music, but a whole package of fun, games and music coupled together with the image.
How involved with the repertoire are you, and how do you go about choosing it?
We're very involved in it. Particularly with bands like Five and Girl Thing we have a very clear idea of the style and the area of music that we're going to target before we even put the band together. We will be very hands on with the whole A&R process all the way through.
And I'm constantly working on relationships with songwriters and producers, looking out for new ideas, whether they're copyrighted or new original ideas. I'm often spending a lot of time in the studio with the artist, and particularly get involved with a lot of final mixes. We have a very good ear for music and particularly in this area.
What demands do you put on your artists after you have decided to take them on?
I'm not prepared to work with anyone who's not ambitious and not prepared to treat this as a 24-hour/7 days a week job. I look at it as an absolutely full time/round the clock job and would expect any artist that I work with to view it in the same way.
It can be a very condensed career. It's a waste of time for the manager and everyone involved if the artist is not prepared to maximize on what can be a short career. That's the obvious kind of demand that we would put on an act.
We're not a management company that rules by an iron fist, we take from our artist as well as give. It's very much a two way street when we talking creatively and marketing ideas and even all the creative musical ideas as well. It's not, our way or no way - it's a collaboration.
Why are there no major management companies in the world like there are major record companies?
Because it's an intimate relationship, and if you are going to give all to an artist in terms of your management skills you can't possibly have a huge roster.
There are major management companies but they're not equal size to the major record companies. You couldn't possibly deal with a roster of artists that size, but there are a select view management companies that have risen to the top that are merited more on their success rate than the size of their roster. We definitely keep an open eye on other management companies and we learn from them.
How many songs do you receive from unsigned acts per week?
We do get a lot, probably a box full a week. I would say probably 50 - 60 a week. And yes we do listen to them, pretty much all of them. It's not something we do everyday, maybe that we stop on some material that's come in and then we'll have a listening session where we scout through the box.
I can honestly say that I’ve never signed an act through unsolicited material that has been send through, but in terms of songs and songwriters there are people that we've got involved in that way.
We still accept unsolicited material. You can't sit around and wait for something to fall on your desk, you have to go out there and look for it, but equally you can't turn your back on that material because if one day in my career one thing's come through the post which I end up managing then the whole process has been worthwhile.
Do you consider unsigned bands to have a good general knowledge on how to approach the business?
I think we get too much material that is not up to scratch. They've sent out material too early - they need to actually decide what's unique about them, an unique angle, where they are going to fit in to the market. I'll prefer to receive one song which is brilliant than twelve songs on a showreel which are all mediocre. A lot of unsigned acts who send out material, that's the first thing they always get wrong.
There's a lot of people out there who suddenly decide this is what I want to do - I want to be in music - and they'll send the first thing out which they've produced. I think timing is everything.
You should take your time and really prepare your package. And think about the person who's going to receive it, and what those first impressions are. You have one opportunity to send unsolicited material out because once you start sending it back and back again, that first impression lasts. It's important to knock people dead with it first time. Rather than keep going back and changing the formula and than sending it again, because you will end up going round in circles.
Can you offer some words of advice to unsigned artists, with regards to submitting material?
Presentation is everything. The quantity of material that comes in here, you can't tell one package from the next.
It's always good to have good presentation, something which will catch your eye. I will listen to something on all formats, but I would say probably CDR is the preferred format. And I will probably listen to the first twenty seconds of the song. So if something doesn't grab me in twenty seconds I don't really listen, my ears shut off from then on.
What are the largest misconceptions about being a manager?
There's a very old fashioned view where artists can view the relationship as an Us and Them relationship. There can be a divide between manager and artist. Modern managers will treat the relationship very much like a partnership, but there has been managers in the past which have ripped off artists and exploited them to their own benefit. There can be a bit of animosity between an artist and a manager because of these old fashioned views. But once you build on that relationship and an artist can view it as a partnership than you're off to a successful start.
Do you work with acts from outside your country?
I don't at the moment, but I would do. We receive material from overseas, and I definitely would do. There are some ideas which we got at the moment where we will be looking for talent from outside the country, in Europe, so yeah I'll definitely would do.
When you set up a live performance for an act, how do you form the band on stage, where do you get the musicians from?
Now I've got musicians in mind who through experience we've used and we know that they're good, good for the sound, the style of music which we're involved in. I will present those musicians to the artist, and if the artist isn't happy with them then we would audition some musicians. We've got a stable of musicians who we would use, who would be our first choice now.
We still receive showreels and CDs from musicians from all over the place who's material we put on file should a situation arise where we were looking for more musicians again.
Do you pay attention to things like who the A&R is, who the attorney is, who the team is?
Definitely. Now we build up the stable of A&R men, lawyers and accountants who we work with. I know who I work well with. There's a handful of A&R men in the UK who I think are excellent and who I will continue to work with. That's really important, because there's a lot of A&R men who aren't great. The same in every profession.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
Next week: Eric Morand, A&R at F Communications, Paris, France, A&R for Mr.Oizo (Levi's puppet), Laurent Garnier etc.
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